Life and Death in the Third Reich

Peter Fritzsche
  • Review
By – January 10, 2012
This well doc­u­ment­ed work is note­wor­thy for the author’s exten­sive use of rare let­ters and diary entries col­lect­ed from both Jews and Ger­mans. It is one of the few socio­his­tor­i­cal stud­ies of the Holo­caust that attempts to con­vey the plight of ordi­nary Ger­mans who, Fritzsche main­tains, were often con­flict­ed about the per­se­cu­tion of their Jew­ish neigh­bors and class­mates. The book’s the­sis is that the Ger­man pop­u­lace was entranced by the offer of renewed pride and sense of iden­ti­ty empha­sized dai­ly by the Nazi regime. The secu­ri­ty and strength derived from Aryan ideals and aspi­ra­tions served to counter the humil­i­a­tion expe­ri­enced in the after­math of the First World War and the per­ceived nation­al degra­da­tion stem­ming from the pro­vi­sions of the Ver­saille Treaty. The author argues that the racist ide­ol­o­gy and geno­ci­dal inten­tions of the regime were to some extent sec­ondary to the infu­sions of racial and nation­al pride pro­vid­ed by Hitler and Goebbels. 

This is a ques­tion­able the­sis and it will be left to the read­er to weigh this analy­sis of the needs, yearn­ings, and behav­ior of ordi­nary Ger­mans. The absence of ref­er­ence to the views of Daniel Gold­ha­gen is strik­ing giv­en his sharply dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions regard­ing the wartime atti­tudes of the Ger­man pop­u­lace. Fritzsche’s work paints a more benign por­trait of Ger­mans, with few facts on the coun­ter­view, name­ly, the cen­tral­i­ty of sadism and geno­ci­dal zeal of the cit­i­zen­ry. Ample eye­wit­ness accounts sup­port this assess­ment of the period. 

It would be a mis­take to dis­count Fritzsche’s empha­sis on the appeal of ide­ol­o­gy for the inse­cure, dis­en­fran­chised, and impov­er­ished. It sure­ly plays a key role in our cur­rent inter­na­tion­al con­flict with Islam­ic jihadists. Nev­er­the­less, to under­es­ti­mate the plea­sure that vast num­bers of Ger­mans obtained from par­tic­i­pat­ing in and/​or wit­ness­ing the destruc­tion of the Jews would rep­re­sent a seri­ous intel­lec­tu­al oversight. 

This is an impor­tant addi­tion to the lit­er­a­ture but will like­ly find itself lim­it­ed to a spe­cial­ist read­er­ship. Index, notes.
Steven A. Luel, Ph.D., is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gy at Touro Col­lege, New York. He is a devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and psy­cho­an­a­lyst in pri­vate prac­tice. He is co-edi­tor (with Paul Mar­cus) of Psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic Reflec­tions on the Holo­caust: Select­ed Essays.

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